A Happy Little Working Song

Fortune magazine reported on a study which found that happier employees are more productive, which seems obvious. The question then is, how can employees be happier? The Whitehall study would suggest that more control over one’s environment would suffice, but that would never do. No one would fill in their timesheets. From what I’ve gathered from attempts by human resources to address morale issues, there’s an assumed correlation of employee happiness with engagement.

Then along come these two articles which argue that the secret to happiness at work isn’t employee engagement, but disengagement: care less. Yeah, that makes sense.

And for once I’m not being sarcastic.

They claim, in brief, that one’s work is not the Meaning of Life and recommend not feeling guilty about not meeting unspoken expectations. That’s all well and good, but if I don’t work — more specifically, if I don’t have a job — how will I have money to buy food to feed my children and to provide them with shelter? They don’t suggest not working, but rather not to let it consume you. The classic documentary Office Space explores what happens when one cares too much, and then not at all.

The trick is in finding balance. Not between work and life, because work is part of life, but between obsession and despair. Find the space for balance within life. That’s hard to do when the job is the most important thing because one does need to eat.

You can check out any time you like / but you can never leave.
— “Hotel California,” The Eagles (1977)

My former wife and I often argued over my working hours. I’ve been in IT operations, which is traditionally 24×365, since 1996, but even before that I would spend long hours at work, partly because I enjoyed it and partly because there was work to do. The arguments didn’t get anywhere, but she expressed a preference I now find understandable: she liked having the kind of job that stayed at the office. The kind of job that started at a set time, lasted a specific time, then ended. A job that demanded her attention for a limited time: 9 to 5, shift-work. She basically wanted, in the terms of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a non-exempt position.

This is well-understood as a way of balancing demands on time, having been the way the business day had been organized since the 8-hour day was introduced. An 8-hour day is also in Benjamin Franklin’s daily schedule. It was an improvement on earlier industrial scheduling, but has side-effects: clock-watching, traffic jams, schools starting with sleepy students, daylight saving time used to “lengthen” daylight, and so forth. While it doesn’t directly address the problem of work obsession, the 8-hour day does offer an intentional break from the treadmill. If it still exists. It never has for exempt staff.

So how?

This, as Andrew Taggart notes, is not a problem of time management. It is one of attitude.

Need-Blind

The ocean of the Internet tosses up interesting flotsam, and then it sinks below the surface again. I read some passing reference, perhaps by Niall Ferguson, to the British Empire needing a lot of clerks to do the computing, and thus schools to train them in the essentials of empire: completing and processing forms, and thus neat handwriting and arithmetic. (I’d like a citation.) We’ve since invented mechanical computers to tabulate and process the forms, and outsourced the completion of the forms themselves to the end-users.

In this otherwise excellent discussion of AT&T’s Workforce 2020 program, an employee training initiative intending to re-skill 100,000 employees in the next three years, Randall Stephenson makes a throwaway comment that, of course, the student has to learn the new skills on his own time. Because, we’ll help you help yourself, but only if you’re interested in keeping up with the changing world. (My experience of layoffs at AT&T has been that when jobs are eliminated, the people are generally given the opportunity to apply for any remaining jobs.) The coursework that Mr. Stephenson mentions is available at Udacity and Georgia Tech. It’s an exciting program. These are, for the most part, skills that didn’t exist less than a decade ago, using tools that were pooh-poohed by big companies like AT&T. But what about general purpose skills? What about the world beyond the virtual?

I spent today assisting with completing the FAFSA and TAP and PROFILE and now I’m tired and wondering what would be the harm in disregarding parental ability to pay and considering only the student’s assets, if those. Though I suppose then colleges, trade schools, and such might either lower their fees in order to attract students, turn elsewhere for funding, and go out of business. Is it really optimal for adolescents to guess what the labor market might demand in four years rather than for an employer to train an employee to do what needs being done now or in the relatively near future? It’s unreasonable to expect any student to take on debt based on the assumption of future earning potential. One, they’re not in any position to make an accurate assessment of their prospects; and, two, robots. In four years 9.5 million truckers will be looking for new work. Meanwhile there’s a shitload of clerical work that’s purely inefficiency — healthcare billing, for example — and doesn’t require a college education in order to complete, though one might consider lawyers essentially to be clerical help of a particularly specialized kind, not to mention the skilled trades. What’s wrong with apprenticeship? Besides, many adolescents are impatient: they are ready to go and do. They are done with waiting.

If college is to prepare one for a job, then why is the student paying for it instead of the employer? And if it’s not necessarily to prepare one for a job, but rather to work together to enhance our understanding of ourselves, of this world and the next, then why would we limit who can undertake that quest to those who’ve won the parental lottery? Or, to be frank, given the existential threat that robots pose to humanity, why would we limit learning at all, since increasing understanding is the only thing we will be for (maybe not even that)? Perhaps we need to ask, where else is there a community of scholars but at college?

Anyway, apply first and meet all the deadlines. You will have no idea what college will cost until three months after all the forms have been filled out.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Norway’s SlowTV film of the Bergen to Oslo railway is beautiful and deeply moving: nostalgic. Though I’ve never been to Norway, I’ve ridden trains. While I can count long train rides on my hands, my time commuting on MetroNorth Rail-Road, the New York City subway, and the London Underground are some of my favorite memories. I looked forward to riding the train. One year my commute passed through Penn Station. A ticket on the next train out of New York beckoned me to buy one and go.

I’ve started working with the movie in the background. The rhythmic rumble, the occasional announcements, are soothing. I tricked myself into thinking I’m working in the cafe car. Now and again I look up and out at the fjords.

One of the wonderful aspects of system administration, or DevOps as the kids call it these days, was that much of the work can be done anywhere there’s an Internet connection. This begins to pale as a wonderful aspect when anywhere is restricted to just another grey cubicle in a sea of grey cubicles, and pales to insignificance when anywhere becomes only your bedroom, and the few minutes you see other people is at the school bus stop. All of your friendships and conversations become virtual — which is just the thing you once desired so much. What offered the promise of working anywhere became working nowhere. Meanwhile, the world of IT operations long ago realized that if the work could be done from anywhere, then it could just as easily be done from India or Slovenia as from New Jersey, so while BigCo real estate operations were trying to lower costs by reducing the office footprint and exploring telecommuting, other folks at BigCo were looking at ways to get rid of people entirely, not by replacing by replacing them with machines (automating or optimizing processes), but with cheaper labor from elsewhere. Costs were reduced, one assumes, not through efficiency and gains in productivity, but through the illusion of arbitraging regional differences in the cost of labor.

Cleaning my library, I ran across an N-scale model railroad that I’ve carried with me from house to house. If memory serves, it last ran in Loveland, Ohio. I may have been 12. Our youngest, 8, put it together last year, but couldn’t resolve an electrical problem, so it went back in the box. He likes to build with Legos, so this Christmas I gave him a Lego train. We need more track.

I stopped working in New York for moments with my children. Our first child would be asleep by the time I got home, and not yet awake when I left. Taking employment nearby meant I could see my family for breakfast and dinner, and sometimes lunch. There was a trade-off, of course: no more trains, for one.

Each place I’ve worked has had its own atmosphere, its own odor. A new cat came to live with us last year and the adjustment has been, shall we say, complex. So I am in the process of ripping out all the wall-to-wall carpeting and replacing it with something urine-proof. In the meantime, I’m sleeping in the library. There is something so cozy to be surrounded by one’s books. Sometimes I lie awake just staring at all the friends I’ve made and places I’ve been.

Each place I’ve worked has had its own character, its own people. This place here has cats and on occasion small children. One of my first employments was as a clerk at a Standard Drug in Richmond, Virginia. There were just a handful of us on staff: the pharmacist and his assistant, the store manager, another clerk, and me. I did not deal much with the pharmacists other than to pass prescriptions to them, so I only have a faint impression of them. The manager was in his 40s, perhaps older, with glasses, a scraggly beard, and bad teeth: probably a lot like how I look now, except for the teeth. The other clerk spent his days stoned. That summer my brother and I lived with Grandmother; we were expected home for dinner by 5:30. Dinner was always at 5:30. I would walk down the road to the Henrico Public Library branch, if books were needed, then make it back to Grandmother’s for dinner. Late nights I spent with Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Turner Classic Movies. It wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I made real friends at work, or was even interested in doing so. And then I found peculiar characters, colleagues, kindred spirits, and friends.

Working from a coffee shop is a great way to observe a bunch of characters while you work, if you pick the right shop. But you can get trapped just watching everything transient. Much better is the cafe car on a long-distance train or the counter at an all-night diner. People seeking people come and sit there, often drinking, sometimes working, sometimes holding forth, sometimes playing cards.

It is easier to build team spirit on a virtual team than to address alienation. We coalesce around our shared goals, tasks, and complaints quite easily. Interpersonal problems do arise, if not everyone is working at their best, which can require a chat, perhaps the resetting of expectations, but my experience has been that the team wants to work as a team: no one wants to let another down, and quite willingly picks up work that another has dropped. They almost have a common enemy in their employer — not in the competition as one might expect — which is not for the best, but suffices.

Where did we get this idea of work-life balance, that work and life were separate? Did we not realize that by putting work in opposition to life that we’ve aligned it with death? Or was that an intentional recognition that in some respects our way of working is not living, but a kind of zombie existence?

We forget sometimes that a lot of life is constructed around us by society, and when we’re cut off we do not know how to build it back. One of my great failures as a manager was [name redacted], who was a very talented employee, supremely dedicated to his work — until one day it all went to hell. No one else worked near him, or talked to him on a regular basis, so no one knew what was happening until he just stopped. He gave up fighting. As Peter Gibbons puts it in Office Space, “I’m just not gonna go.” The bullshit defeated him. Like the rest of us, he’d been working essentially by himself from home for some time.

I haven’t figured out how to fix this, yet. But it seems to me that the key might be have meaningful work in the first place; nip this problem in the bud.

What Are You Here For?

I have, since I found out about it, wanted to go to space.

I remember, vividly, watching Star Trek in color in the basement of a friend who had television and shag carpet. I was young: older than five and younger than eight.

(I remember, vividly, watching all of Star Trek in one weekend at St. John’s. But that’s another story.)

I consumed all of the LIFE Science Library and every mention of space in the National Geographic.

I devoured all stories of the stars I could find, all of which made it seem possible. I despaired when Skylab crashed in the Australian desert. I gobbled up the news that NASA would launch a space shuttle. We were on our way again!

Or not.

Still, the first job I wanted — and failed to apply for — was an internship with NASA at Wallops Island, Virginia. That was the first time I decided I wasn’t good enough; I hadn’t enough experience. I was too young.

Yesterday, Elon Musk announced the plans his company SpaceX has to develop an infrastructure to get one million people to Mars, with first launch in 2022.

I’m so excited! I want to be part of this! Why do all the open positions at the company have to be in California?!

Now I’m too old.

Go West, Young Man! Ad astra per aspera.

What is Work? What is Rest?

I spent the other day driving around. First to the doctor, where he confirmed my self-diagnosis of bronchitis, and then across the county for an x-ray to eliminate pneumonia or another cause of my limited breathing. In addition to a course of antibiotics, my doctor prescribed at least 48 hours of rest. That was Wednesday.

I had a restless night.

Thursday, instead of working on things specified by my employer, I thought about work and rest. I suppose I could have just slept, since I’ve been tired for the past two months, but the brain is too active. It seems to me that the root cause of the illness is not an irritant to the lungs, but an impaired immune system response resulting from stress. This is what I want to fix, so when the doctor says to rest, what does he mean? It’s not like I can stop breathing a while and my lungs will magically fix themselves. What am I resting from?

We have varying ideas of work and rest, but here I’m concerned with the particular conception of work and the values surrounding it which I’ve picked up passing through life. The dictionary definition does not get to the heart of what troubles me. Instead, what is meant here is that work is strenuous activity and rest is no or limited activity. Where in that spectrum do sedentary activities, those with limited movement, fall? Or, to ask a slightly different question, what makes an activity not work? My job, for example, is sedentary. I sit in front of a computer all day, “doing nothing.” Judging from how tired I am at the end, it does use a lot of energy, even during meetings, so I might consider it a strenuous activity, though someone looking at it from the outside might consider it no work at all — which I know they do, because I’ve had that thrown at me. On the other hand, reading a good book or taking an interesting class might be as strenuous in terms of energy used as my paid labor, but leaves me feeling me feeling refreshed rather than exhausted.

It is not simply that work is hard and rest is easy, for hard work can be refreshing and inactivity exhausting. Nor, for the same reason, can they be considered opposites; rest is not simply not doing work.

I had a restless night, again.

As the joke goes, “Doc, it hurts when I do this.” “Stop doing that.”

Qualification

Certain things aren’t talked about — or at least are avoided because they are uncomfortable to talk about — in polite society; that is, beyond our immediate circle of intimates: politics, religion, race, gender, sex, salary, feelings, whether or not I’m happy at work and seeking other employment. The strange personalized anonymity of the Internet changed this a bit. We put on masks and play roles with more ease, swapping one identity for another as circumstances dictate, or in a search for ourselves.

Sam Altman of YCombinator asked for applicants for a research fellowship at YC Research to study the effects of a basic income. I applied.

I applied, even though I have no work experience in the field, because I want to do this work, and because of this statement in the posting: as always we’re more interested in someone’s potential than his or her past.

That friendly statement was important. One of my foibles is that I remove myself from consideration for a lot of work that I would like to do because I don’t meet, or think I don’t meet, the specified requirements for the position. And even if I do apply, I find it difficult to sell myself, even though I feel confident that I could do any work required, because there’s that learning curve that experience and training do help overcome. More importantly, perhaps, why should someone have faith that I can do the work if I haven’t done the work before? What intangible assets are they willing to buy when they expressed a preference for certain tangible assets, such as a college degree or certification in the field? Why should I be considered for CIO, for example, if I do not have an MBA and have not supervised a large number of people in addition to a large number of computers?

The last position that I applied for before this was also one for which I was nominally unqualified. While a position in IT it involved Microsoft products, which I have studiously avoided for well over ten years. I applied at the behest of a friend, who thought I would be a great fit for his team because I had the soft skills he wanted: specifically, he wanted someone who could step in for him as Director of IT Operations if he were hit by a bus. His boss, the VP of Technology, however, wanted certification and experience with the products the company used. Or, as he put it, he wanted someone who could hit the ground running. I applied despite this, because I agreed with my friend, and because the salary would have been three times what I’m currently making, and one does need to pay for one’s children somehow. As expected, the VP followed his preferences, and did not accept our argument that general practical experience combined with the ability to learn quickly and solve problems were more important than specific experience with a given product. Basically, the two of them were hiring for different positions. I wonder how they’re doing these days.

I’ve found, in my professional experience, that certifications are relatively meaningless. Rare has it been that the nominally qualified candidate has met my performance expectations. Usually it has been the opposite. But if certifications are worthless, how then does someone know whether you are good, if you can do the work they want you to do? The evidence of the work done, or, loosely, experience. Which is the difficulty if one is entering a field for the first time, whether as a recent graduate or someone seeking a mid-life career change; we are all neophytes.

In the past I’ve leaned on learning things quickly, or at least more quickly than others, to make up for a lack of direct experience. But I don’t know how to sell that. Doesn’t everyone claim that they can communicate well, that they learn quickly, that they can solve problems, even if not as well as AlphaGo? Does one simply assert that something is true, and let the buyer learn from their disappointment or delight?

And so we have spec work and trials — or, online portfolios and blogs.

Sorry. Procedures.

I’m reading an excellent book right now that’s discussing how we surrender our judgment to detailed rules and procedures: The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America, by Philip K. Howard.

These problems plague any large organization, not just government.

An example from today: One of the applications I support needs to increase storage by 26 GB (spread across 8 filesystems on 3 hosts). (IBM doubled the size of some software.)

The Company funds increases of up to 10% of the existing filesystem from the operations budget, but requires a special project and dedicated budget line for anything over that. The needed increase is greater than 10% of the size of the existing filesystems.

So, I could increase the 3 TB filesystem by 307 GB, but not the 3 GB filesystem by 3 GB?

Kinda funny what happens when people don’t understand percentages, isn’t it?

You Missed a Spot

In housework, as in any field primarily concerned with the reduction of chaos, the work itself is not noticed; only the failures are.

Take a few moments today to thank your spouse, your domestic help, your secretary, your department of public works, your firefighter, your sysadmin for keeping chaos at bay.

Statistical Enquiry of the Devil’s Playground

Certain laws and regulations, and policies related to those, have a non-trivial impact on statistics which are not normally thought of in concert with those laws. For example, mandatory sentencing increases incarceration rates, which in turn will decrease the employable population. Child labor laws directly impact the employable population, but so do mandatory attendance requirements for high school.

How does the unemployment rate of the United States compare to other nations when differences in incarceration rates and school attendance are taken into account?

Or, where do these people find the time to riot?